Between June 23, when the Waldo Canyon fire started, and today, 346 homes in Colorado Springs have burned. More than $11 million has been spent on containment efforts, 35,000 people evacuated, and at least two have died. And this is just a single blaze—the most destructive—in the worst fire season in Colorado history. After I read Philip Connors’s excellent rumination Fire Season, I thought we were supposed to like fire, to treat it as part of the natural landscape. And indeed, we as Americans do like it, though not as a part of the natural landscape but the political one.
Last year, we had something similar to the Waldo Canyon fire in this part of the world. The Las Conchas fire, then the biggest blaze in New Mexico history, singed 156,000 acres around the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In the months after the fire, politicians like New Mexico Congressman Steve Pearce blamed Las Conchas on restricted logging, environmentalists pointed fingers at the overgrazing of livestock, and locals used the catastrophe as a rallying cry for the closure of the nuclear labs. None of these battles were novel. These groups had been advocating the same causes for ages. The fire was just an excuse to draw attention to them.
But in Colorado, they’re not even waiting for the flames to die down. President Obama toured the key swing state’s swelling disaster zone on Friday afternoon. In the days after the Waldo Canyon fire really took off, the environmental advocacy group 350.org blamed the expanding number of acres burned on Exxon’s failure to take global warming seriously. Another environmental nonprofit, the Eugene, Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, used Waldo Canyon to make the case for climate-change legislation: “We can keep trying to put out individual fires, but until we address the underlying coals of a heating nation, we won’t stop the inferno.”
As you might expect, conservative saber rattling is just as loud. Christian right wingers have been filling the comments sections of news stories with comparisons of Waldo Canyon to the flames that “will burn our economy to the ground.” You know, the flames the Supreme Court lit when they upheld Obamacare. One writer, the Colorado Springs–based Michelle Malkin, wrote in the National Review: “The ultimate rescue mission? Evacuating Obama’s wrecking crew from the White House permanently.” To that end, during a press conference about the state of the emergency, a conservative reporter asked Colorado governor John Hickenlooper how Obama contributed to the spread of these fires. His curt response: “We should be focusing on our support on them [those directly effected by Waldo Canyon] and on the people out there risking their lives to fight these fires.”
And that’s exactly the point. Hundreds of homes, the most in state history, have burned to the ground, and there are more than 1,000 firefighters on Waldo Canyon alone. Maybe, as 350.org puts it, “This is what global warming looks like.” Maybe, because of budget cuts and tweaks to the fire budget, it really is Obama’s fault that Waldo Canyon became so destructive. But right now, and until the Waldo Canyon fire is stopped, it’s the wrong time to wonder about these things in a public forum. So, we’d like to kindly ask Americans to embrace a new social courtesy: please, wait until the wreckage has stopped smoldering before wagging your fingers. There will be plenty of time for that once the rains return to the Rockies.